By Roslyn Sulcas
December 30, 2015
Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times
NEWBURY, ENGLAND — “I just want to get over it,” Lady Mary said. “I mean, over him. I mean, over with. What do I mean?” She burst out laughing and turned back into the actress Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey.” Allen Leech, who plays her brother-in-law, Tom Branson, stepped in to help, “She wants to get it over with.”
It was May at Highclere Castle, the Georgian mansion that serves as set for the titular building, and the cast was halfway through the six-month shoot for the show’s final season. When Season 6, which has already aired in Britain, begins Sunday on “Masterpiece” on PBS, it will be over for Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), their daughters, relations, servants and the love affairs, intrigues, criminal trials, deaths, marriages, withering asides and maintenance of etiquette that have defined “Downton Abbey” since it was first broadcast on ITV in Britain in September 2010.
“I love the way it’s all unraveling,” Ms. Dockery said. “There is a feeling of people moving on with their lives and the sense of the aristocracy as a kind of endangered species. But Mary is trying to keep it going; she doesn’t really like change.”
Who does? Probably not PBS, which saw audiences, and its profile, increase to more than 10 million for Season 5 from five million viewers for Season 1. That number often dwarfed shows across commercial networks.
“‘Downton’ was the rising tide which lifted all boats in every way, shape and form,” said Rebecca Eaton, the “Masterpiece” executive producer. “To have a hit of this magnitude put us back in the international conversation about drama.” Everyone involved, she added, “is feeling quite sad.”
From its opening, with the news (via ironed newspapers) of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, to this final season, set in 1925, when women are working and great houses like Downton are foundering, the series has been catnip to audiences fascinated by a bygone era, the ways of the aristocracy and a social hierarchy in which everyone’s place, however high or low, is rigidly defined.
“‘Downton Abbey’ reconfigures conflicts between the lords and ladies upstairs that are mirrored by tensions among the servants below,” Alessandra Stanley, a former television critic for The New York Times,wrote in 2013 of Season 3. “Fortunes lost can be regained, some class lines can be breached, and love triumphs again and again, and then one more time.” The series, she added, “is a fantasy that gets sillier in prolongation.”
The erosion of those clear lines — which began early in the series when the chauffeur Tom Branson married Lady Sybil and slowly made his way into the heart of the family — is a persistent theme in Season 6, with talk of downsizing the staff, some of the servants branching out into other jobs, and Lady Edith (played by Laura Carmichael) and Lady Mary both working women. Even Lady Grantham, the wife of Earl of Grantham, secures an occupation.
“I think that the history that we are tracing makes this a good point to stop,” said Gareth Neame, an executive producer of the series. “There could have been a seventh or eighth season, but I think the six seasons are beautifully formed. Everything is changing, but the heart of the show is about a group of people living under one roof, and in 1925 that is still the case.”
On a sunny but chilly spring day, no one seemed particularly miserable about the end. “It’s a funny thing, it’s a bit of relief in a way,” said Jim Carter, who plays Mr. Carson, the estate’s butler and embodiment of all aristocratic household standards. “We’ll all miss it, it has dictated the rhythm of our lives for the last six years, and it was more successful than anything any of us will probably ever do again. But it’s right that it comes to an end.”
His words were echoed through the halls. “I’m quite glad actually; I don’t think it’s in an actor’s DNA to play parts for very long,” said Kevin Doyle, who plays Molesley, a footman. (Some months later, when the actors’ lack of sentimentality about the ending of the series was recounted to Maggie Smith — the Dowager Countess — she laughed. “I heard Big Jim was crying!” she said.)
Mr. Carter, who seemed less imposing and beetle-browed than on screen, was sitting on a dainty chair in a small room filled with chunky film equipment and props. Nearby, the crew was setting the dining room table for a scene in which Mary, Edith, Tom, Lady Cora and Bertie Pelham (Edith’s new love interest, played by Harry Hadden-Paton) discuss the practicalities of opening Downton to the public for a day to benefit the local hospital. (“Why should anyone pay to see a perfectly ordinary house?” the Dowager Countess asks incredulously in a prior scene.) The actors, some with bathrobes over their costumes — palatial homes are hard to heat — were tapping their cellphones or reading the newspaper.
All said in interviews that they were amazed by the way “Downton” took off after the first season. So was Julian Fellowes, the show’s sole writer, who originally envisaged “Downton” as a single season, inspired by the upstairs-downstairs world he had already created as the writer of the film “Gosford Park,” for which he won an Academy Award.
“During a memorably bad dinner, Gareth asked me if I would ever think of going into ‘Gosford’ territory for television,” Mr. Fellowes recounted in December.
“You have to remember — it seems strange now — but at that time, the received truth was that there was no audience for that kind of drama,” he said. “So I had to shape it in a way that was a self-contained unit. I chose 1912 as a starting point, because I wanted it to be at the beginning of the modern world, moving into trains and cars and telegrams, and ending with the announcement of war. Then, I thought, if we get a second or third series, they could be very contrasted; during the war, then after. We never thought it could be more than three.”
Asked if he hadn’t been tempted to keep the show going, Mr. Fellowes said he had felt strongly it was time to end. “You want to go at a high point,” he said. “You don’t want to go when everyone is relieved to see the back of you. It’s like a woman with a successful frock. There is a moment when you’ve worn it enough.”
The show’s popular success has been huge, with audience numbers in Britain close to 12 million for several seasons, dropping only slightly for Seasons 5 and 6; that’s almost 20 percent of the population. But “Downton Abbey” came in for frequent critical drubbings from British reviewers, who noted with disappointment a shift into soap opera melodrama. Reviewing the opening of the final season, which begins with a fox hunt, in The Telegraph, Ceri Radford wrote: “I felt nostalgia of a different kind at play, too, in the longing for another distant era: namely 2010, when the first and best series of ‘Downton’ aired. No installment has quite measured up since.” And yet, she noted, “these characters still manage to catch and compel, even if you know that rationally, the whole dramatic edifice is less stone abbey, more house of cards.” (The series finished with a two-hour special on Christmas Day in Britain.)
Mr. Neame said that Downton’s “soapiness” was a key ingredient in a successful formula. “Like lots of British producers, I’ve worked on a lot of things with aristocrats and servants,” he said. “But Julian can write this world in a way no one else can, and in ‘Downton’ he has reinvented the genre, and made it a costume drama with the pace and rapidity of storytelling of a modern series.”
That reinvention has had a considerable influence on television, from “Mr. Selfridge” for ITV and Steve McQueen (whose 2013 film “12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for best picture) with “Codes of Conduct” for HBO, to Mr. Fellowes’s new projects: “The Gilded Age,” set in 19th-century New York high society, for NBC, and the Victorian-era “Doctor Thorne,” based on a Trollope novel, for ITV.
Whether the actors, made internationally famous by “Downton,” will continue to have substantial careers is unsure. Dan Stevens, who played the unexpected heir to Downton and romantic interest to Ms. Dockery’s character, left the show after three seasons to pursue other roles but hasn’t been particularly visible since. Mr. Fellowes put it succinctly. “The young ones, they are stars now — but are they?”
Although the series has abounded in historical references — from the trenches of the First World War to the arrival of refrigerators and the Teapot Dome Scandal in the United States — Season 6 contains few concrete reminders of events in the outside world. (Although Neville Chamberlain, then the minister of health, does come to visit.) Instead, the series seems to show the characters taking in the social realities that have been consistently alluded to in previous episodes.
Well, sort of. Constant talk of social change doesn’t seem to have impaired the gorgeous clothes, the impeccable manners, the elaborate dinners, the ritualized service and the sense of community that have made the series irresistible to audiences across cultures.
“I think Americans in particular love the show because of the way character is defined in relation to social position and the way a stratified culture offers you possibilities or constrains you,” said the American-born Michael Engler, who directed Episodes 5 and 6 as well as the Christmas special in the final season. “What’s interesting for us is that the dignity of anybody below stairs is as integrally related to the well-being of the house and family as above stairs. In the end, they are a kind of family; they are all equally invested.”
He gestured at the magnificent proportions of Highclere’s drawing room, familiar to viewers. “And then you have all this; you couldn’t build these sets,” he said. “Nobody does this kind of period drama better than the British. You always have the feeling it rings true; this is how it would have happened.”
Bearing out his words, the show’s historical adviser, Alastair Bruce, checked the dinner table for accuracy before the actors began to rehearse their scene.
“Even if no one would know if the wrong fork was there, it’s the subconscious elements that help make ‘Downton Abbey’ succeed,” he said. “The series charts the diminution of aristocratic life from its heyday to a period that we’re still living through really, and you’ve got to get every stage of that right.” He paused. “What I love about the ‘Downton Abbey’ story is that we all know it’s going to end — and they don’t.”
Ms. Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith, looked up. “Yes, we do,” she said. “We’re all going to cry.”